Traditionally, when shopping for a soldering iron, there’s a clear choice to make – you can buy a fixed-temperature soldering iron, which is little larger than a bulky pen or screwdriver and which plugs directly into the mains, or you can buy a temperature-controlled soldering station which links the iron to a typically hefty control and power box, which sits on your desk. The latter takes up more room, but offers fine-grained control to make your soldering easier and less likely to end in a ‘cold joint’.
The Miniware TS100 is a hybrid design which sits between these two. The iron itself is smaller than most fixed-temperature irons, but it hides all the functionality of a large control station inside its sleek housing. That reduction in size, though, does come at a definite cost.
The first clue that you’re holding something quite different to the norm is found on the iron body: a small OLED display panel and two buttons provide on-body temperature control, while a micro USB connector suggests that there may be more to the TS100 than meets the eye.
Installing the tip – provided with a cone-type and chisel-type in the reviewed bundle – is quick and easy, using the bundled Allen key, and powering the iron on is a simple matter of plugging the bundled power supply into the end of the iron and a mains socket.
As the TS100 boots up, a process you wouldn’t normally associate with a soldering iron, it will set a target temperature and then begin to heat the iron tip to that temperature. A push of the buttons allows you to shift the target up or down to accommodate different solder types or more heat-sensitive components, and the heating of the iron is based on feedback from the tip – meaning that if you’re soldering a larger joint which is pulling heat away quickly, the iron will provide more power than if you were soldering a smaller joint, the key difference between a simple variable-temperature and a true temperature-controlled iron.
It’s at this point you might think you’re ready to solder, but there’s an unfortunate flaw in the TS100’s design – in addition to a housing shape which makes it possible for the iron to slip backwards through a too-weak grip and burn the user’s fingers: the iron tip shows a ‘floating voltage’ from the power supply, easily enough to damage sensitive components.
The solution is provided in the bundle: a grounding strap, which screws to a dedicated ground terminal at the end of the iron, should then be connected to a suitable ground, such as a mains grounding terminal adapter. When connected, the iron is safe to use – but, without it, you’re likely to find your components silently failing for no apparent reason.
The power flaw is a real shame, as it impacts on the flexibility of the iron: accepting 12–24 V inputs, it should be possible to power the iron with a single cable to a suitable battery; without the extra grounding strap, though, it’s just not safe.
An investigation of the micro USB connector reveals why you might want to put up with the flaws and foibles of the iron anyway: inserting it into any PC loads a selection of configuration files which can be edited and saved to change a variety of settings, including how long it takes for the iron to enter its clever power-saving sleep mode.
For the more adventurous user, you can go still further: Miniware has released the iron’s firmware source code, allowing for a variety of hacks and modifications. Some have already used the code to write new firmware with an improved user interface and better features; others have used it to change the iron into a completely different tool, from a Tetris-like handheld console to a fully functional, though basic, oscilloscope.
The TS100 isn’t a new iron, it’s been around for over a year, so there’s been plenty of time for the community to put it through its paces. Those interested in picking up a TS100 of their own should know that Miniware has already designed and released its successor, the TS80. Featuring a range of improvements – but, sadly, the same smooth housing with no flaring to the front, still risking burnt fingers if you let it slip backwards – the more expensive TS80 is, an upgrade to the TS100, but at the time of writing was available only for import from Chinese distributors, with no bundled power supply.
While the TS100 is never going to replace a high-end soldering station – especially one with hot-air functionality, allowing for easy soldering of more complex surface-mount parts and quick desoldering of components for reuse elsewhere – it’s an interesting tool, and one which can be combined with a suitable battery for on-the-go repairs.
Its open-source firmware is also a fascinating concept, and one which flies in the face of many tool companies, which appear to go to great lengths to lock down their designs against third-party modification – typically as a way of selling identical hardware in entry-level and professional-grade guises, differentiated only by the features enabled in their firmware.
Anyone who does pick up a TS100 is recommended to install the rewritten Ralim TS100 firmware, available at: github.com/Ralim/ts100, which is a great improvement over the stock firmware provided by Miniware.
miniware £69.98 miniware.com.cn
The TS100’s flaws don’t quite outweigh a clever design and hackable firmware.